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This Cop Movie Actually Hates Cops

By Sara Clements | Film | April 25, 2023 |

By Sara Clements | Film | April 25, 2023 |


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Do we need more movies or TV shows about cops? The majority of people would look at the poster for or read the synopsis of a crime drama prominently featuring police and say with an eye roll, “Here we go again.” That dismissal is warranted. We see police forces everywhere who seem unable to serve and protect, especially minorities. We see police forces who can easily sweep crimes under the rug for the right amount of cash. Apart from almost every single true crime documentary, most entertainment media glosses over law enforcement’s true face and incompetence. So, it comes as a surprise that a straight-to-VOD-looking movie like Damián Szifron’s To Catch A Killer actually doesn’t paint the police in a flattering light. The script by Szifron and Jonathan Wakeham tackles everything from corruption to racism, but these discussions are still too surface-level here to match the weight of their severity in today’s society.

A killer lurks on unsuspected Baltimore partygoers taking in the New Year’s Eve festivities. The shots from his sniper are drowned out by the booming, colorful fireworks lighting up the midnight sky. Panic and terror ensue. No corner of the city seems safe. Cries of pain are heard as beat cop Eleanor (Shailene Woodley) tries to make sense of the horrific scene in front of her: a teenage boy dead on the living room floor of his family apartment. These killings seem random with no other motivation than a sick individual wanting to hunt for the thrill. The odds of figuring out the who and why aren’t in the cops’ favor, as like a supervillain, the killer vanishes in style, leaving an explosive mark.

It’s clear early on that Eleanor has a keen eye for detail, whether examining crime scenes or starring down suspects for clues. She’s a bright young rookie that sees things differently than others but isn’t given chances to shine under her chief. When FBI Special Agent Lammark (Ben Mendelsohn) enters the scene, however, she leaves him curious. Her understanding of the killer either makes her a good detective or equally as psychotic. These intuitive qualities lead Eleanor to work alongside Lammark as a liaison. Woodley and Mendelsohn prove to be a fantastic onscreen pairing, acting more as equals than having the unbalance of power seen in most cop shows or films. Similarities in their character slowly come out, especially in their views on the case and law enforcement. Their anger, frustration, and exhaustion over the constant head-butting with higher powers, who often disrupt their investigation, is palpable. Eleanor has a lot to prove, perhaps in a similar way to Lammark as a gay man in the force, and both are outsiders in a game fuelled by power trips and political tips. Setbacks and friendly fire put the investigation and their careers at risk, and there’s uncertainty about whether they’ll catch the killer before he strikes again.

“How do we change that,” Eleanor asks Lammark when discussing how people shape crooked systems and how those systems negatively impact people. In a police procedural still riddled with many of the typical cliches, a conversation like this between a veteran and a rookie on the force is very refreshing. To Catch A Killer doesn’t provide a definitive answer - perhaps a too burdensome question for one film. It’s interesting, too, how the film breaks stereotypes of the killer profile, especially in relation to terrorism. Law enforcement is quick to suspect people of color, and this results in even more anger and upset for Lammark and Eleanor as the rash judgment by police not only threatens the investigation but harms lives. Sweeping mistakes under the rug is easy when the police have their hand in politicians’ pockets. The film lays this all bare, but still only scratches the surface in many respects; the Black community’s anger over police misconduct is just background noise on a TV. Unfortunately, our understanding of the characters, and especially the killer, remains unsatisfyingly on the surface, as well. Eleanor is wrestling with demons of her past that allow her to understand the killer, but the focus on the killer himself is very brief and we aren’t given much time to explore psychologically what makes them so similar.

Audiences with a penchant for true crime may dislike the unequal focus on killer and cop (but Ralph Ineson unsurprisingly makes an impression in his brief screentime). Much of the draw to this genre is on the killer to see how they tick and to learn more about them to try to understand what drove them to commit such heinous crimes. More exploration of the latter would have strengthened intrigue. Despite a subject matter and characters that desperately needed more depth, To Catch A Killer surprises with its thrills. There are many shocking and unexpected moments of gripping action that keep you glued to both the screen and your seat. A fantastic score by Carter Burwell (I don’t know why he took this gig either) engulfs the audience in both terror and urgency. With some bad line delivery and awkward scene execution thrown in, it’s the definition of a mixed bag. But it also throws law enforcement in the interrogation room, something just as critical as catching the killer.